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Unpaid Work Experience Is Widespread but Some Are Missing Out: New Study

20 January 2017 at 4:44 pm
Staff Reporter
A socio-economic gap for access to unpaid work experience is emerging as unpaid work becomes more common, write report authors Dr Damian Oliver, Professor Paula McDonald, Professor Andrew Stewart and Associate Professor Anne Hewitt in this article which first appeared in The Conversation.

Staff Reporter | 20 January 2017 at 4:44 pm


Unpaid Work Experience Is Widespread but Some Are Missing Out: New Study
20 January 2017 at 4:44 pm

A socio-economic gap for access to unpaid work experience is emerging as unpaid work becomes more common, write report authors Dr Damian Oliver, Professor Paula McDonald, Professor Andrew Stewart and Associate Professor Anne Hewitt in this article which first appeared in The Conversation.

Most young Australians undertake unpaid work experience as part of their education or training, to maintain entitlements to social security, or simply to improve their job prospects. But those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have those opportunities and those on placements associated with government benefits enjoy their experiences less.

These are some of the key findings from our new report, funded by the Commonwealth Department of Employment.

We also found that unpaid internships or placements may involve significant costs for those who undertake them.

The research, the first of its kind in this country, surveyed 3,800 people aged 18 to 64 about work experience. It specifically excluded volunteering, such as at a church, charity or club.

Who does unpaid work experience

In our study, more than half of participants aged 18 to 29 had recently participated in unpaid work experience. A quarter of those aged over 30 also had at least one placement.

However our results show there are some who have trouble accessing unpaid work experience. We found that young Australians (18 to 29 years old) from lower socio-economic backgrounds (as defined by parents’ highest level of education) were less likely to have participated.

The results also show that people living in a capital city were more likely to have undertaken internships or placements than those living elsewhere. Participation rates were also higher for men compared to women.

Unpaid work experience extends beyond traditional student placements in medicine, nursing and teaching, and internships in professional fields such as creative industries, law and finance. Our research revealed work experience in a wide range of professional, intermediate and entry-level roles across many industries.

Of those undertaking unpaid work experience, 36 per cent reported that their most recent period of unpaid work experience lasted over one month. A similar proportion (37 per cent) had undertaken a single placement, while 26 per cent had two such experiences. One in five participants had undertaken five or more episodes in the past five years.

Reasons for participating in unpaid work experience

Around half of all unpaid work experience occurred in connection with a formal course of tertiary or VET study or secondary schooling. This is unsurprising, given the emphasis that education providers and employers now place on work-integrated learning. However, this means half of all arrangements occur outside of education or training curricula.

In our survey, people also completed unpaid work experience because: they were required to do so to maintain Youth Allowance or Newstart payments, they were part of an unpaid trial during a recruitment process, it was unpaid training following an offer or employment, or for some other reason.

The fact that so many young people did this sort of work experience for some other reason indicates that many placements are being self-organised by students or job-seekers outside formal course requirements, or that organisations are establishing internships and recruiting participants for their own purposes.

This is significant because unpaid internships or placements like this may breach minimum wage laws, unless they are connected to an authorised course of education or training, or do not involve productive work.

Benefits and costs of participating in unpaid work experience

Consistent with previous studies that highlight the benefits of increased workplace exposure, participants in our study were highly satisfied with their unpaid work placements.

They reported developing skills and knowledge, improving employment and career prospects, and improving their networks. Unpaid work experience also helped them decide whether that field of work was suitable.

The people who were most satisfied with unpaid work experience were those who did it as part of study. Those who were least satisfied did their unpaid work experience as a requirement of Youth Allowance or Newstart or for “other reasons”.

Our study showed 27 per cent were offered paid employment by the host organisation following the period of unpaid work experience. Those who were in unpaid trials or training, or arrangements associated with Youth Allowance or Newstart, were the most likely to receive an employment offer.

However, our data doesn’t tell us whether these jobs were sustained or short-lived. Nor does it give any clear indication as to whether participating in work experience actually improves the chances of finding a job.

Our research revealed a variety of costs associated with unpaid work experience. For example, over a quarter of respondents reduced their hours of paid employment in order to participate in unpaid work and 20 per cent organised and paid for their own insurance. These costs may mean some can afford to access this work experience while others can’t.

More than one in 10 respondents paid money to a broker, agent or directly to the host organisation to take part and one in four had to travel longer than one hour to attend. Among the study participants, 17 per cent lived away from their usual home to participate.

Professions such as politics, journalism, law and finance are dominated by those from privileged backgrounds. This is not only because existing social networks promote opportunities, but because wealthy families can afford to support their children while undertaking work experience.

In our survey, young people from high socio-economic backgrounds were more likely than other young people to say that they cut back their paid work hours, paid for their own insurance, travelled for more than an hour or lived away from home.

What this means for policies on employment

In May 2016, the Australian Government announced a $840 million Youth Jobs PaTH (Prepare-Trial-Hire) Program. The policy includes skills training and access to voluntary internships of four to 12 weeks for job seekers under 25. It also provides a bonus youth wage subsidy paid to organisations that go on to employ young job seekers.

Given how widespread unpaid work placements have become, the policy may provide much-needed resources to host organisations to support better learning, career and employment outcomes for participants.

However, the government could learn from how education institutions structure their unpaid work experience placements. The involvement of an education institution provides a learning framework and support around unpaid work placements that a government-led initiative may struggle to emulate. Educational institutions may also be supervising or screening placement opportunities to ensure they provide a positive learning environment.

The socio-economic gap for access to unpaid work experience we identified will widen if unpaid work becomes more common or a de facto prerequisite for securing ongoing employment, so governments should address this. This could include scholarships or additional support for low-income participants in particular.

About the authors:

Damian Oliver is the deputy director of the centre for management and organisation studies, UTS business school, University of Technology Sydney. His main research area involves examining the connections between education and work. This spans the apprenticeship and traineeship systems, students and their participation in the labour market, and how well qualifications prepare people for jobs in the modern labour market.

Andrew Stewart is the John Bray professor of law at University of Adelaide. His main interests lie in employment law and workplace relations, contract law and intellectual property. Besides working as a consultant with the national law firm Piper Alderman, he has provided expert advice to the International Labour Organisation, to federal and state governments in Australia and to a wide range of other organisations. He is the president of the Australian Labour Law Association, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and an editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Law.

Anne Hewitt is an associate professor at the University of Adelaide. She teaches civil procedure and dispute resolution, and has a particular interest in anti-discrimination and equality law. She represented SA on the Law Council of Australia’s Equalising Opportunities in the Law Committee for five years, and is a member of the editorial board of the Legal Education Review. She established the Law School’s Teaching the Law seminar series in 2009, and is currently co-coordinating the series.

Paula McDonald is professor of work and organisation and ARC Future Fellow at the QUT Business School. Her research focuses on facilitating work-life boundaries, the systemic causes of and solutions to workplace discrimination and harassment, education to employment pathways for young people, and social media at work. Prior to an academic career, she held clinical and research roles in health sector settings including child and adolescent psychiatry, medical education, primary care and public health. She is a registered psychologist with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

The Conversation

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